Rosalind Wee has lived an incredibly blessed and storied life. “Naka chamba lang ako (I just got lucky),” she says with a big smile plastered on her face. Even as one of the most successful, self-made businesswomen in the Philippines, Rosalind remains humble. Her story reads like a remarkable fairytale, because she has literally done it all. Over the course of her career, she became a legendary entrepreneur, dabbling in multiple industries before making a vast majority of her fortune in carrageenan. She owns buildings, she’s written educational books, and even started a late in life career as a working film actress. Yet, she remains the same person as she always was—a small town girl from Jolo, Sulu, who holds God and her family above anything else.
It all started in the classroom. After leaving Jolo, Rosalind moved to Manila to study mathematics at FEU, where she met her future husband Lee Hiong Wee. Upon graduating, she applied for a teaching post at Xavier School in the early 1970s. In her two years at the prestigious private boy’s school, Rosalind left her mark. She assisted in writing a new book that the school would adapt into their curriculum. Meanwhile, Lee Hiong was also building his name in academia, working as a physics professor.
Although life as teachers was incredibly fulfilling for the Wees, they had bigger plans for their future. “One day, my husband asked me: how much do you make in Xavier? I said PHP 400 a month. And then I said, what about you? He said PHP 600,” she shared looking back. “He then said ‘Talo ka, you have to stay home because we’re going to start a business.’” The couple soon started selling handcrafted items from Zamboanga such as puka shells and other ornamental products. One of their biggest clients was the then-Hilton Hotel. This was the early beginnings of what would become the W Group of Companies.
As they continued to climb the ladder of success, Rosalind’s great imagination brought her into new and exciting territory. She had a hunch to enter the highly profitable dried seaweed industry, and soon established W Hydrocolloids Inc.. Soon the company would start exporting thousands of tons of dried seaweed to places such as France, Denmark and several countries in South America. Curious as to why these nations needed seaweed in the first place, Rosalind traveled to the United States for a Food Ingredients Show. There, she learned that the seaweed was being processed into carrageenan, an ingredient used in food products, medicine and several personal care items as a stabilizer, thickener and gelling agent. Eager to stay ahead in the game, Rosalind quickly went home to develop her own original formula for carrageenan. Despite multiple trial and errors, she finally created the perfect formula. Soon after, she started supplying carrageenan to the biggest food companies in the Philippines. They remain her clients till this day.
Today, Rosalind’s eldest son, John Wee, runs the W Group of Companies. However, she maintains the position of Vice Chairperson to advise him whenever he needs her. Rosalind took a smaller role in the company’s daily operations over 30-years-ago, when her doctor discovered a tumor the size of a golf ball on her optic nerve. She then traveled to New York for a special fifteen-hour surgery. Unfortunately, it was a little too late. Her life was spared when the tumor was removed, but the operation left her legally blind. Despite a life changing incident, Rosalind never let it get her down. She carried on as her usual optimistic self, living a life full of laughter and love. “I hope you see the sunshine of the morning, cause some people never wake up,” she says are the words she lives by.
With a lot more time on her hands, Rosalind stepped into multiple new roles. She became a doting grandmother, moved to Indonesia when her husband became the Ambassador to the Philippines, and started supporting the arts as a patron. Rosalind sits on the board of Ballet Philippines as a trustee, serving the organization as their treasurer. She says that she was inspired to promote ballet to Filipinos after experiencing an incredible performance by Indonesians while she lived there. “They were so very good at ballet,” she recalls. “And I said, Filipinos can be just as good. So when Ballet Philippines showed up, I joined them. I never say no when they need something from me!” She laughs.
While Rosalind’s work with Ballet Philippines mostly happens behind the scenes, she is actually a gifted performer as well. She has proven it with her new late in life career as a working film actress. Today, she boasts a resume of three film roles, appearing in projects such as Mano Po 7, This Time I’ll Be Sweeter, and Open. However, Rosalind’s newfound movie stardom came to her as a small accident. “I’m a good friend of Mother Lily, and she asked me if they can use our office [the W Building in BGC] for the movie Mano Po 7,” she shared. “My son said that I better watch over the office because there will be a lot of people there. So I told Mother Lily that I should be a part of it, so I can watch over [the production]. They didn’t even ask me if I had experience. No audition. I had the role.”
“Of course, they were surprised when I was good,” she continued with a giggle. “This actually isn’t new to me. When I was in high school, I was a stage actress. For me, movie acting is easier than stage acting. If the director doesn’t like what you are doing, he can say cut and you get to do it again. But really, they didn’t realize that I actually had a little experience. We are a family of singers. And all of my siblings were stage actors and actresses.” In the film, Rosalind plays Richard Yap’s business partner. Apart from showing off her acting prowess, she was also able to showcase her skills in the Chinese language.
Rosalind Wee may have had a fairytale life full of glamor and excitement. However, the role she loves to play the most isn’t movie actress nor innovative entrepreneur. What she values most is her role as the Wee family matriarch. “When I was in the business, I only slept for 4 hours a day,” she shared. “I wanted to watch over my six children, and I never did not bring them to school. I always spoke to the teachers. It didn’t matter if [a collection check] needed to be picked up somewhere, I would always say never mind, let’s prioritize the children first. This is who I am. Family is very important. I always tell people that success is not you alone.” With such grounded personal roots, strong family values and an infectious optimism, it is no surprise that Rosalind Wee has had all her success in life. Her flourishing businesses and career is just a bonus for her, because Rosalind considers her true fortune to be her life, her health, and the love from her family and friends.